Brand and others,
I agree that Oates was very good at exploring phenomena in life from a religious understanding. As a long time pastoral counselor, I confess that there were times I worked harder at the psychological, psychiatric, and psychotherapeutic understanding and skills than trying to discern the religious and or spiritual implications of the situation.
His discussion of idolatry is a powerful example of how this can be helpful. In spiritual care settings, I have been often confronted with all kinds of examples of this occurring. Unresolved, delayed grief is one of the best examples and hardest to confront. Persons that raise their anger over a slight or unfaithfulness can become an idol that becomes the person’s ultimate concern. One of the toughness is one that I see in my small rural congregation, where a caregiver becomes so overwhelmed with the care for a family member that nothing else matters. And I think Tillich was right on target when he talked about nationalism becoming an idol for some persons. It seems all religions or faith tradition has segments who need black and white answers to the problems of life. This often leads to right or wrong, win and lose, kind of positions that don’t allow for respectful dialogue about differences.
For the 12 years my son was out in the darkness of addiction, it was always a temptation to raise my concern for him to an ultimate concern, which got in the way of my care for our other kids.
I thought Oates suggestions for pastoral care in these situations were very good.